by Kelly Lucas, client marketing director
I’m from a suburb of Metro Atlanta called Newnan, Georgia, in Coweta County. We’re known for a few things like Doug Stone, Alan Jackson and being the primary filming location of The Walking Dead (and for the older folks, the subject of the Johnny Cash movie Murder in Coweta County). As of this week, we can now add to that list one more thing: stealing copy. Yes, I’m rather sad to report that my hometown’s local paper, The Newnan Times-Herald (NTH), lifted word-for-word a story from Decaturish.com without first asking permission of the site or the author. You can read the full story with all the details (and trust me, you really want to read this) on the Decaturish website: Newnan Georgia – Where Copyright Goes to Die.
Without rehashing the whole story (since that’s basically the topic in debate), here are the basics: Decaturish author Dan Whisenhunt wrote a story called HB 60 – NRA Wanted Public Housing Language. A few days later, someone alerted Dan that his story was posted word-for-word on the website for NTH. Not only was it posted without his permission, it was being offered for sale via their online archives.
Mr. Whisenhunt contacted NTH and a series of communications ensued between Mr. Whisenhunt and the General Manager of the paper, John Winters, with some participation by the Georgia Press Association (GPA). My paraphrased interpretation of what Mr. Winters had to say: “Your site doesn’t get as many hits as ours, so you’re not really losing out.” My paraphrasing of the GPA’s stance: “That’s too bad, you two hash it out.” (Again, if you haven’t already read the whole account, you need to read it now. We could probably create a drinking game around how many times your jaw drops as you read through their responses.)
I think this incident has given pause to quite a few writers and publishers, causing them to review how they share or attribute copy. True journalists and writers have a good grasp of this etiquette and the basic rules. Even if they can’t recite the entire section on copyright laws, they still get it. But sometimes even the most professional journalist gets a little too busy, just grabbing something from someone else and using it either whole or partly in their work, hoping no one notices or cares. And even if someone does notice, better to ask forgiveness than permission, right? (Admit it, you’ve used that phrase at some point in your professional career.)
It’s definitely got me double-checking that I’m doing everything properly when referencing someone else’s material. And that impulse for extra caution leads me to believe it’s a positive that this “ethical check” has presented itself. I think all professionals who publish need to pause for a review to be sure that they aren’t getting complacent and just phoning it in and potentially skirting copyright issues. So if there is a benefit to be gleaned from this incident, it’s that it has started a conversation that will hopefully educate more novice writers and serve as a reminder for the rest.
What was most disappointing, at least for me, was Mr. Winters’ lack of accountability. While the story was removed per Mr. Whisenhunt’s request, it was the seeming complete disregard for copyright ethics and just general “who cares” attitude that was displayed by Mr. Winters that really raised my hackles. He’s supposed to be the one who leads the charge for his organization and ensures they are adhering to ethical standards. Instead, he pretty much postured like a bully with a “what are you gonna do about it” response. Well, Mr. Whisenhunt’s article is getting quite a few social shares and comments right now, so I guess he got his answer.
Odds are this will be like most “oh my gosh how could they!” stories and get bumped into history by a really cute and funny lolcat or some other viral outrage (“What did Jay-Z say to Solange?!”) Society as a whole will lose track of it and probably most folks in and around Newnan, even those who whole-heartedly agree and side with Mr. Whisenhunt, will eventually lose some of their ire and just go about their business. Not so for the writers who follow this story – this has struck a chord.
So what do you think? Do you think Mr. Whisenhunt was justified in his exchange with The Newnan Times-Herald, or do you think Mr. Winters is in the right? We’d love to hear your thoughts.